Reconnecting with old friends can improve your mental health and theirs

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New research shows that reconnecting with old friends can have a positive impact on their mental health, as well as yours. Santi Nunes/Stoxy United Santi Nunes/Stoxy United
  • Reconnecting with old friends can give a big boost not only to your own mental health, but also to those you reach out to.
  • New research finds that people underestimate how much others appreciate an unexpected phone call, text message or email.
  • With the growing strain on mental health caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, health experts say now is the perfect time to connect with friends from your past.

Good times with old friends are some of the best memories that can pop up when you least expect them. And when nostalgia hits hard, it’s easy to wonder how your long-lost friends are doing.

New research finds that reaching out to an old friend and asking them what’s going on in their lives can be good for your mental health — and theirs, too.

In fact, people don’t realize how much an unexpected phone call, text message or email is appreciated, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

“I think people are often very surprised to approach them. I think they feel touched to think about them and not forget them, and I think those positive feelings of surprise further reinforce how grateful they are that they just reached them,” Peggy Liu, Ph.D., lead author and associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, told Healthline.

Liu led a series of experiments involving more than 5,900 participants to analyze how well people understand the impact of initiating contact with others.

In one experiment, half of the participants indicated the last time they texted, emailed, or called a person they lost touch with “just because” or “just to catch up.”

The other half of the participants were asked to recall a time when someone reached out to them. The researchers found that those who reached out underestimated how much their gesture meant to the person they were reaching out to.

“I think people are often hesitant to connect for a variety of reasons, which may include not fully understanding the benefits of doing so. I hope our research removes one of those barriers – people will likely appreciate that you’re reaching more than you expect,” Liu said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a strain on mental health. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that anxiety and depression increased by 25% globally in the first year of COVID-19.

Additionally, a Harvard report found that 36% of all Americans feel “severely lonely.”

Various other studies have shown that many adults aged 50 and over are socially isolated or lonely, and this can increase their risk of conditions such as dementia, heart disease, stroke and premature death.

Reconnecting with a friend or loved one also doesn’t have to be personal to reap the mental health benefits.

According to a study published in Journal of Social and Personal Relationseven electronic social interaction can lead to lower levels of loneliness and depression.

“In a time of such tremendous collective grief and disconnection, having people reach out to connect can bring significant joy, peace, and mental well-being to your life,” Gina Moffa, LCSW, psychotherapist, told Healthline.

Relationship in general, especially authentic relationship, is the antidote to loneliness and many diseases that manifest psychologically and physiologically, she added.

“It is vital to our well-being to have authentic, supportive relationships in our lives. If reconnecting with an old friend brings that about, it can be very beneficial for the nervous system and overall quality of life,” Moffa said.

Reaching out to people you haven’t spoken to in a long time offers an opportunity for vulnerable connection, she added.

“We can talk about what’s been going on in life, why we’ve lost touch, what’s happened since we last talked, and maybe share intimate emotions that may have been kept quiet for many years,” Moffa said.

Your relationship may also come at a significant time for you or your friend.

“Sometimes someone reaches out after a tragedy, and that provides an opportunity for comfort from someone who knew us in older periods of our lives,” Moffa said.

While Liu hopes her research will encourage people to connect with friends, colleagues and others they’ve lost touch with, she notes that her research focuses on people reaching out to those they’ve had positive interactions with in the past .

“We have not yet studied people who associate with others with whom they have had disagreements, so it is possible that the results may be different if we study people who associate with others with whom they have had disagreements,” she said. “Importantly, though, I think most of our social relationships are with those with whom we primarily have a history of positive interactions.”

Before sending a note, Moffa suggested thinking about why you’re reaching out to an old friend by asking yourself:

  • Is it in my best interest to reach out given the history of our relationship?
  • Could this harm my well-being?
  • What do I hope to get out of this?
  • What are my expectations?
  • Can I emotionally prepare myself for the possibility of being rejected or ignored?
  • Am I willing to share intimate details of my life since our last conversation?
  • Can I be vulnerable and honest with this person?

“Knowing why we’re reaching out will help us be more authentic and manage expectations,” she said. “I think depending on the type of relationship, as well as the details of why the relationship is separated, it can help determine how much joy it can bring to our well-being.”

For example, if the relationship was abusive or unhealthy, she said, first ask an objective person you trust what they think about you reconnecting with the distant person. This can help you gain a deeper understanding of what your intentions really are.

“When we’re vulnerable, we tend to be more reactive, but that can open us up to rejection and in turn impair our overall mental well-being,” Moffa said.

And while she agreed that a relationship can help with loneliness, she noted that when people are lonely, they tend to seek comfort, which can include impulsively reaching out to an old relationship.

“When we’re lonely or feeling vulnerable, we probably don’t think about whether this reconnection is in our best interest. To stop and understand why we are reaching out will help us clarify what our hopes and expectations might be and whether it is a healthy course of action for us,” she said.

If you decide to reach out to someone from your past after thinking about it, go for it, but “try to be gentle with yourself, regardless of the intentions or the results,” Moffa said.

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